My day job is in gaming retail, so it comes as no surprise that me and my colleagues play a lot of games when we get together outside of work. One of our favourite things to do is play horror games as some sort of group entity – each of us taking turns pushing further and further into the shared sense of dread.
It does dull the experience somewhat. It’s obviously not as scary to explore the sinister asylum halls of Outlast in a room of shrieking, jumping twenty-somethings constantly passing the controller, cracking jokes about terrifying monsters and spilling wine everywhere. Gear VR horror games lose some of their edge when you can vaguely hear distant small talk about work beyond slamming doors and chittering clown dolls. It’s nowhere near as insidious and spine-tingling as playing a genuinely scary game home alone at night (If I had played Face Your Fears alone I would have shat myself). So when we played Layers of Fear, I expected it to be much the same. We would take turns jumping, laughing, dying, having nervous breakdowns, it’d all be hilarious and I’d have absolutely no issue crossing that yawning space between the lightswitch and my bed that night.
Oh, how wrong I was.
The horror of Layers of Fear screams from its empty spaces. The suspense caused by the clear night sky, where just a moment ago you swear you saw a hellish phantom, or the bloody, scrawled note that wasn’t on the table last time you looked. The things you see on your gruesome voyage through a labyrinthian stately home pushing you forwards and backwards all at once. From the vagueness of its overarching plot to the creeping body horror that makes your hair stand on end, Layers of Fear does so much to captivate you with seemingly so little effort. It’s scary enough to captivate a room full of nerds hellbent on doing anything other than fall victim to a jump scare.
It’s no secret that the greatest horror comes from the unexplained. Not necessarily things like ghosts, ghouls and zombies, but the depths of human cruelty, the mysteries that surround sudden disappearances or illnesses. Whilst Layers of Fear certainly does have a supernatural element, the ghost story isn’t the thing that really scares you. It’ll definitely make you jump, it might even make you nervous, but it won’t make you afraid. The fear comes from the breadcrumb trail of a storyline, exposed through mad paintings and tragic letters, telling the tale of a painter who might have done something awful to his wife and infant daughter.
As you wander the shifting halls, the game constantly offers notes and scrawled drawings that fuel endless speculation on the grim details. Each one you find makes the mansion’s horrors all the more personal. The motivation that drags you from room to wretched room is the ongoing quest to finish your masterpiece, a central painting that changes depending on your choices. There’s no hokey moral choices here – the game simply arranges itself based on the notes you’ve chosen to collect, your reactions to the ghost that twitches in the shadows, and the doors you’ve entered. Is the mansion real, or is this all just a metaphor for a downward spiral? It’s never made overtly clear, but as Layers of Fear drags you kicking and screaming into its blood-stained corridors, you’ll be speculating right until the very end.
The environments seem to be hyper-aware of your place in them and even where you’re looking at the time, and while this can lead to some moments where you’re trapped in a room looking side to side like the John Travolta meme hoping to trigger the event that’ll let you progress, it’s mostly horrifying. It’s the slow burn of phantom movements, whispers just at the edge of your hearing, and that ever-growing chill at the base of your spine, all broiling together until the game decides that it’s time for you to start shopping for new underwear.
You’ll find yourself aimlessly wandering around at quite a few intersections, waiting for the right spook to progress, and that’s when the pace begins to suffer a little. More than once I had to reload the game because a puzzle had glitched and the story wouldn’t move forward. The ever-distant narrative tapestry Layers of Fear weaves is fascinating, but when the threads start to pull apart, a few yawning holes appear. The multiple endings are triggered by obscure and lengthy criteria that require either careful planning or blind luck to get the ending you want – not that there’s a happy one – and sketching out what ghost you’re not supposed to run away from and which collectible you should just leave on the shelf just saps away at the horror that makes it so compelling in the first place. The best advice I could offer is not to play it for a particular ending. Just wander, and let the narrative form around you.
By itself, Layers of Fear is incredible. It takes the first person horror concept popularised by titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and lavishes it with fresh dread. But the Inheritance DLC, which comes bundled with the game’s Xbox One release, fills out the unexplored corridors of the mad painter’s tragedy and somewhat clumsily brings it all to a close. By placing you in the shoes of his daughter, returning to her family home as a young adult, you see the events of the core game in a new light while expanding into some new traumatising territory. Inheritance is an addendum, of sorts, more surrealist overlay than epilogue. It attempts to clean up some of the clutter, the excess of collectibles chucked in a bin, the narrative suddenly stark and clear instead of subtle and largely down to imagination. Whether that’s a good thing or not is down to the person playing, but one thing Inheritance does brilliantly is perspective – and how it can change even the most ordinary things into fear.
Exaggerating the world through a child’s eyes, having even simple furniture look imposing and oppressive, while sinister toys are almost tall enough to stare you in the eye (and they do). Twisting rooms, locking closets, your father’s pounding on the wall like monstrous thunder as you play discordant tunes on a piano, the family dog a snarling hellbeast. Inheritance disorients you, opening door after door, knowing that the next one you open could be the one with the monster behind it.
But there isn’t a monster. There’s just a man driven to madness, and the sad fate of the people who loved him. The mansion is the villain of the piece, soaked in sorrow and hate, almost alive, forcing you to relive her troubled childhood with adult eyes. Inheritance wouldn’t stand on its own, but with the foundation the main game lays, the experience is downright chilling. It asks you to forgive or forsake a man who had lost control – a man whose multitude of demons you have already faced – and finally brings the story to a close. Parts of Layers of Fear will fade into distant memory when you’re finished – the occasionally clumsy puzzles, the abundance of jump scares, fiddly ending criteria. But some of those gloomy gothic corridors, full of woe and loneliness, will haunt your mind for years to come.
- Fascinating storytelling and genuinely scary environmental mechanics create a compelling game that should be up there as one of the all time indie horror greats.
- Only very occasionally stymied by progression issues and illogical solutions, but when Layers of Fear trips up, it’s frustrating as hell.
- The core game bundled with Inheritance is great value, especially for Xbox One gamers who haven’t had the chance to play it yet – delivering a complete, well-rounded experience that’ll ruin your ability to appreciate paintings for years to come.